Category Archives: Landslides

The Green River Formation

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

About fifty million years ago the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River did not exist.  The area was surrounded by the Wind River Mountains, the Uintah Mountains, the San Juans, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and the newly formed Rocky Mountains.  This huge area had no outlet to the sea.  The climate was similar to our current Gulf Coast, warm and moist.  During the six million years we are exploring, things changed.  Lakes formed and receded, land rose and subsided, and through all this the surrounding highlands were sending their sediment into the lakes.   

The Green River Formation is the result of all the sedimentation.  It is up to ten kilometers in depth, thinner at the margins.  At first the lakes were fresh water, but later became saline, leaving large deposits of carbonate rocks.  The trona deposits at Green River, Wyoming are some of the richest in the world.  The margins are sandstone and conglomerate interlaced with the fine silt that filled most of the basin.  The formation is rich in the fossils of the abundant life in the lakes.  They are world famous for their variety and abundance.   

There was an anoxic layer at the bottom that preserved the organisms settling there.  The lakes were abundant in blue-green algae.  The remains of the algae are the source of the oil shale deposits the region is known for.  The oil shale is there in millions of barrels, but it is expensive to extract the petroleum from the rock.  It may never be commercially viable, but the formation has been extensively studied as a result.  

Green River Formation Map

Green River Formation Map

Standing in my home town of Fruita looking north, the white cliffs behind the Book Cliffs are the Green River Formation.  The Roan Plateau is huge, but does not attract visitors like the red rock country to the south.  A huge exposure is the highlands west of I-70 from Rifle to DeBeque Canyon. 

My interest is from visiting ranchers and hunting in the Douglas Pass area in my youth.  Most of our visits were to ranches in the Green River Formation.  The elevations varied greatly.  The ranches were along West Salt Creek, but there were back country roads that went from sagebrush desert to piñon-juniper to oak brush shaly hillsides with sandstone rims to high country timber with world class mud.  In fact, the mud is world class everywhere in the region. 

Back before four wheel drive became common, there was a pile of rocks at the bottom of every big hill.  Load them in the back of your pickup, go where you planned, and unload them on the way home.  There is a network of canyons with side canyons branching off.  All of it is fine deer habitat.  My favorite places were at the head of a canyon with the wind in my face and a view of the LaSal Mountains and the Uncompahgre Plateau in the distance.  Flat, wooded country gives me the creeps. 

Access to a lot of the country is difficult.  Most of the land is BLM land, but the early ranchers homesteaded the choice land that had water.  The private land meant locked gates.  We knew some of the ranchers, family friends.  Hunting season was a big deal.  There were maybe a dozen or more people, hunting during the day and drinking and playing poker at night.  The big ranch house had a big kitchen with a wood burning stove along with the stove in the big main room.  There was a light plant in the shed next to the house.  It looked like no generator you see these days.  There were also lots of Coleman lanterns when the light plant failed.  Good times and lots of venison.  The unheated bunkhouse was upstairs. 

Douglas pass was up the main road, gravel in those days.  It isn’t that high by Colorado standards, but made up for it with the switchbacks up the head of the canyon to the summit up through that shale.  When the shale is wet, it moves.  The road trapped the runoff, wetting the soft shale, and most every spring one or more places slid.  The mountainside now is braided with old road cuts.  It wasn’t much of a main road in the 1950’s, but now there is so much oil and gas development that the road is a paved state highway that the highway department spends money on. 

The road crosses the desert above the Highline irrigation canal before it goes into the canyon.  It is on the Mancos shale, responsible for all that flat desert in Colorado and Utah that turns to grease when it is wet.  There was one hill the road went over then descended into the wash on the north side.  That meant the road was on a north facing slope for a distance.  That hill was named Coyote, because it could bite and gnaw on you if it was wet.  A bit farther north was a ten or twelve foot high rock on the side of the road, all by itself.  

The county employee maintaining the road in those days had his grader blade scrape on that rock every time he bladed the road.  It would leave a bump, so he would have to drag dirt over to level things out.  One day he got fed up and dug that rock up and moved it off the road.  It was probably a two day project, but he never had to fight that damn rock again. 

After I could drive, I ran around that desert quite a bit.  I learned how to drive a two wheel drive pickup in that greasy stuff from my father.  He was the telephone man in Fruita, responsible for maintaining the toll line as far as Cisco, Utah.  That meant navigating two ruts through the cheat grass and sagebrush.  He could put a two wheel drive pickup into places that were a challenge for a Jeep.  Rocks in the back, chains if needed, put it in second gear and putt along.  He seldom used the granny gear or used the gas pedal.  Those old Chevy sixes would just lug their way along.   

I am as guilty as any back country explorer for spending most of my time in the Rocky Mountains or the Utah red rock country, but the Mancos Shale and the Green River formation are calling me.  I just need to see if my tire chains are in good shape.  I think I will go over Douglas Pass, loop around and look the Piceance Basin over. From Rifle I will go down to Plateau Creek (my father and grandfather said platoo crick) and up to Collbran to look at the big slide.

Our Little Planet

Mt. St. Helens showing a Lahar, a mud and ash flow that ran 50 miles downstream during the eruption.

Mt. St. Helens showing a Lahar, a mud and ash flow that ran 50 miles downstream during the eruption.

Stephen Hawking says we need to have to develop means to get off the planet when the Big One, whatever it is, is about to strike.  That is not terribly realistic, relocating several billion people to a place light-years away.  In other words, life on earth is toast.  Someday.In the meantime, life goes on.  It is spooky how we are fouling the planet.  We humans may create the need to get off this little ball without the means to do so.  In other words, life on earth is toast.  Sometime, maybe sooner.So, let’s deal with what we have while we can.  There are things we can do, but the means to act are part of a political process.  As long as politics is motivated by greed at the level it is currently, we are likely toast.  Maybe sooner.

The cliff that collapsed into a massive mudslide is seen covered with felled trees in Oso, Washington March 31, 2014. Recovery teams struggling through thick mud up to their armpits and heavy downpours at the site of the devastating landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge - an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic contaminants. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) - RTR3JE4A

The cliff that collapsed into a massive mudslide is seen covered with felled trees in Oso, Washington March 31, 2014. Recovery teams struggling through thick mud up to their armpits and heavy downpours at the site of the devastating landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge – an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic contaminants. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES – Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) – RTR3JE4A

As individuals, we must do what we can, and get along with our lives.  We can help, and maybe stave off the inevitable to some degree.  We can respond to natural events.  Floods, earthquakes, tornados, landslides, hurricanes, those things we can react to and help.  We must do more than sit in the Lazy-Boy looking at the screen eating Doritos.  We can give money away, stir things up in meetings, vote, and give some time.

Well, we can do things until Yellowstone blows.  It is surprising how resilient humans are.  Ice ages, cataclysms, droughts, they may kill some and move others around, but the species has struggled on through it all.  We haven’t been around very long, however, and haven’t had to deal with any Really Big Ones in the blink of time we have been around.

The Yellowstone Caldera

The Yellowstone Caldera

The Park Service says the Yellowstone super-volcano is pretty safe, that most eruptions are limited lava flows.  But, someday, it will be like the last big one that created a caldera almost as large as the park.  The Snake River Plain in Idaho with all those lava flows is the track of the Yellowstone hot spot as the North American Plate traveled west.  The plate moves at about the rate your fingernails grow.  As it moves, it erupts.  It just takes a while.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, all interest me, but I am most interested in geologic cataclysm.  One of my favorite potential geologic disasters is climate-related.  Years ago I read an article proposing that sea level rise could lead to the Gulf Stream moving over the continental shelf and invading the Arctic Ocean.  Europe would cool off with the loss of that warm water and the Arctic Ocean would thaw.  With all that open water in the north, evaporation would increase, snowfall would increase in the Arctic, precipitating a new ice age.

I haven’t seen much on that hypothesis lately.  Researchers seem to be concentrating on the rapid melting going on without Gulf Stream migrations, although the Gulf Stream does seem to be weakening.  There are just so many variables to consider.

Ash From a Yellowstone Eruption

Ash From a Yellowstone Eruption

With respect to the Yellowstone super volcano exploding and killing most life in North America, there is only one variable: when.  A couple of years ago I was on a ramble in Wyoming.  Fort Laramie was my destination, but on the way I looked for the Oregon-California trail wagon ruts along the Platte outside Guernsey.  The ruts are dramatic, going up from the river bottom to some higher ground.  They are axle-deep in some tan colored rock that looks like sandstone at first glance.  It is volcanic tuff from the last time Yellowstone blew.  The layer is four or five feet deep about 200 miles from Yellowstone.  That is a lot of stuff blown into the atmosphere.  All that material along with the CO2 and SO2 would kill most everything for many hundreds of miles.

The most recent volcanic eruption in Colorado was about 4500 years ago at Dotsero.  The entire San Juan mountain range is volcanic.  Huerfano Butte near Walsenberg is a volcanic neck.  There are eroded lava flows on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.  There are lots of hot springs in Colorado.  Where is all that heat coming from?  Will the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool erupt?  Will Steamboat Springs’ boiler explode?

Landslides.  There is even one not far from Fruita on I-70.  Debeque canyon on the Colorado River is famous landslide country.  That landslide that killed three men outside Collbran last year is the same geologically.  Green Mountain in Lakewood has a landslide that destroyed several houses.  The Vail/Eagle River valley is good landslide country.  All it takes is a lot of moisture in spring. The canyons incising the front range are landslide prone.  All that rock will eventually find its way to Louisiana as mud.

The upside of all that landslide country is that it gives geologists and earthmoving contractors work.

There is a radioactive isotope of radon gas that is common in some of our Colorado rocks that houses are built on.  Basements become carcinogenic.  There is an anthropomorphic cause of radioactive basements as well.  In Grand Junction, uranium mill tailings were used as backfill around basements is some subdivisions.  More work for geologists, and a Superfund site.

Debris is strewn over an area affected by an earthquake and tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song (JAPAN - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Debris is strewn over an area affected by an earthquake and tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song (JAPAN – Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Earthquakes.  Again two causes, natural and human-caused.  All those earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma caused by injecting fracking water back underground have a Colorado history.  Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver was used to manufacture poison gas for military use and later poison gas for agriculture.  They pumped a lot of the toxic wastewater down wells and set off earthquakes.  They stopped that.  The oil companies are not stopping.  Yet.

Colorado is earthquake country.  Making mountains, shoving rock around to make room for more rock shakes things up.  The Flatirons outside Boulder used to be flat.  North and South Table mountains are capped with basalt from lava flows.  These processes are still going on in lots of places.

The Rio Grande Rift is a Rift Valley stretching from Southern New Mexico to north of Leadville.  The earth is pulling apart.  Look at the San Luis valley, that is a lot of pulling.  It is still going on, but slowly in human terms.  There will be earthquakes.  The biggest quake-causing fault near Denver is the Golden Fault, formed when the Rockies were uplifted.  That uplift has happened about three times.  The mountains come up, get eroded down, come up again, get eroded again.  Will it happen again?  There seems to be some weakness in the crust around here.

What the Meteor Looked Like Impacting off Yucutan

What the Meteor Looked Like Impacting off Yucutan

There are asteroids out there that have orbits that coincide with the earth’s orbit.  It has happened before, could again.  I saw Charlie Rose interviewing Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and he mentioned the possibility.  We have the technology to deal with the the threat, but it will take a lot of money and cooperation.  Will it happen before we need it?  Will it be too late when the danger is imminent?  Ask a Republican.  I hope you sleep well tonight.